A Prescription Of Empathy For The (Online) One Percent

 I’m organizing a conference. There are nine people on the committee. Every detail about the conference is on a Google doc. Only three of us use it; the rest ask questions at every meeting whose answers are readily available on the doc.

I’m caring for someone in the hospital. I create a Google doc so people can self-organize, and email the access info to her network of 50-odd people, asking for volunteers to help cook. Only one person uses it; the rest email me individually with their food and time preferences.

It has become entirely automatic for me to turn to technology solutions for logistical challenges. Hosting a movie screening? Ticketbud. Memorial invitations? Paperless Post. Wedding planning? EWedding. Need guests to see what kind of food others are bringing to our Sixth Annual Thanksgiving Extravaganza so we don’t end up with 50 pies? Evite.

Since you’re reading this column, I’m guessing you’re a kindred spirit. Any tool that automates the process, crowd-sources the labor, and facilitates the outcome is a welcome additional to our arsenal, am I right?



We forget. We forget that there are six people on that committee for whom a Google doc is as inaccessible as Mars. We forget that there are 49 people who are proud just to be using email, and who have neither the skill set nor the inclination to rely on something more complicated. We forget how few Internet services have truly penetrated the mass market, to the extent that they are no longer scary for the “99%.”

But if we can put ourselves in their shoes, we can start a revolution. All we need is empathy. defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” It doesn’t mean being nice to people, or caring about people. It means feeling the world from their perspective, rather than from your own. Among the many dichotomies exposed by Walter Isaacson in the Steve Jobs biography is the fact that someone who -- forgive me -- was such an asshole could be capable of so much empathy.

Without empathy, you create products that are simple for you to use. With empathy, you create products that are simple for a two-year-old to use.

It isn’t easy. When something is so intuitive to you, it can be difficult to appreciate just how not intuitive it is to someone else. It can be difficult to withhold judgment. It can be difficult to remember just how lucky we are that our minds and our education have adapted us well to this online era, and that there but for our privileged background, upbringing and fortuitous timing go we.

A person who doesn’t understand FourSquare isn’t stupid. She has just adapted to a different set of life circumstances. And those life circumstances don’t mean she doesn’t need or want technology. They just mean that, if we want to make that technology accessible to her, we have to have empathy.

As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter. Bonus: If the topic of empathy interests you, you might enjoy this TEDx talk by John Marshall Roberts on ”The Global Urgency of Everyday Empathy.”

5 comments about "A Prescription Of Empathy For The (Online) One Percent".
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  1. Ken English from EnglishPublishing, January 13, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.

    You are correct about recognizing that the majority of people will not take the time, or exert the effort to learn something new. As an over 60 guy who has learned how to produce online video, I find it frustrating when people don't want to learn how to do things to improve their websites, and online marketing. They have a html website build in the mid-2000s, that they can't do anything with, but won't learn how to use Wordpress. They're too busy doing the same things they've done for years, to learn how to use something that makes it easier, and more effective.

  2. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, January 13, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

    This is a GREAT post and so very important to not only those who produce products, but to those marketers who expect people to be using, and to intuitively know how to use them. Also within a work environment where, like the example here, many do not adapt as easily as others. I do not pick up new technology at the flip of a switch, and those I work with have learned how easily I can if you sit and walk me through it... and sometime not so if you need my input, and think it valuable, you may have to reach out in another fashion.

  3. Peter Wright from Focused Prosperity, January 13, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

    Good stuff, I agree with most of the points you make and also With Ted's point about some people adapting easier than others.

    Like Ken, I am over 60 and being fascinated by all the new technology, I have also taught myself to learn skills I would never have dreamed of a few years ago.

    I believe that because of the education system to which we boomers were exposed - no calculators, computers, cell phones, no "delete" keys, very limited TV - which helped our mental math and word skills - we might have an advantage learning the new stuff. If we allow ourselves to do so.

    Where I disagree, is that I suspect some of us - not just older generations - have a finite capacity for what we find useful. For example, although I am on probably over 30 social media platforms for business purposes, personally the location type ones do not appeal to me, so I merely maintain a presence on them.

    Your friends who rely on email instead of "trading up" to Google doc, may have reached their capacity for new technology that they see as useful to them.

    Some of those same people might be early adopters in another type of new technology that they see as more useful in THEIR lives.

    Just my opinion and thanks for a thought provoking post.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 13, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.

    There are 2 sides here and I understand so very completely why people do not want or need to complicate their lives with technology or anything else. However, there are very simple things one can do to be accommodating especially on an as needed basis. Your request for someone to use a tool such a google docs is reasonable (a relatively uncomplicated system) since you are accommodating people with whom you are working with an easy button push. Do the people who are stuck in the mud know not only how important it is to you, but how easy it is and how you could easily show them, even emailing them a cheat sheet, what to do ? This could be a magic wand to get them to step 2 and spread the wealth of knowledge including thank you's later.

  5. Brian LoCicero from Kantar, January 17, 2012 at 12:33 p.m.

    I have to remind myself of this very point every time I get a call from my 68 year old Father when he's having problems with his laptop.

    What I have found is a willingness to learn but his sphere of influence is so small when it comes to technology that only my wife, child and I are it for him.

    So the task falls on our shoulders, and when we feel frustrated covering something which we've explained to him before (maybe 2 or 3 times), we need to remember that he tries hard and he has no peers who can help him as well. We also have to reflect on the fact that since he started on the computer some 10 years ago, we would have never imagined he'd work a webcam, change out a printer, pay all of his bills via online banking, reboot his wireless modem and skype with us on a weekly basis when he's in Florida for the winter.

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